The Fifth Estate, the latest film by Bill Condon (Kinsey), takes a crack at telling the rise of WikiLeaks, the controversial website known for releasing countless classified documents. It does so in a conventional manner, spreading out from the story of Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl), an office worker interested in the work of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Berg, a wizard with computer coding, meets Assange at a tech-convention, where they share brief stories of their lives and distaste with many of the monoliths (financial and political) of modern society. Assange tells Berg about his vast army, like-minded souls raking every nook and cranny of the planet for leaks that could bring down the various regimes of the world by a simple mean; give whistleblowers proper anonymity via technology.
Adapted by Josh Singer from two books, of which Berg was the author of one, The Fifth Estate is a movie that impresses often while managing to stumble regularly along the way. The performances are both aces, with Bruhl giving his second standout performance of the season, after his awards-worthy work in Rush. His Berg could easily be a gawker, in awe of a bold man, but nothing more than an audience surrogate. To some extent, he is written as merely this. Berg has the girlfriend he bounces off his excitements and concerns with for example. Still, Bruhl lifts it several rungs higher. His initial glee is conveyed infectiously, as Bruhl laughs to himself and sports a big ol’ grin.
Bruhl is the lead, though Cumberbatch is the performance more likely to receive press, for understandable reasons. For one, Cumberbatch has been a rising commodity since the debut of the revamped "Sherlock" several years back. Secondly, he’s playing the famous one. Thirdly, Assange is frankly a bit of a character himself, prone to proselytizing to possible converts, with his white locks and confident – possibly arrogant – tone. Cumberbatch delivers as Assange, cold in demeanor, though with enough passion and warmth that he is definitely human.
If the plot revolving the build up of WikiLeaks and the equal crumbling of Berg and Assange’s friendship is a bit rote, it’s not without nuance. Full of few storytelling epiphanies, it’s interesting to see Condon and Singer take a rather neutral stance on the website’s pros and cons. We see the way WikiLeaks allows private information used to dupe millions to get thrown into the ether, consequences be damned. If it hurts a corrupt bank, so be it. If it outs a CIA operative, just as well. The Assange idea of bringing everything into the light to erase all secrets, collateral damage as part of the game, is rather cleanly presented. Characters occasionally ramble on about various virtues, and the music does swell too strongly at these points to boot, but the core of the film holds through it all.
Condon goes overboard with some imagery, with Berg and Assange being seen in a endless room of laptops as a symbol of their virtual world. Of course, when said world has issues, said laptops go smash-smash. It’s frankly goofy. This isn’t an extraordinary movie; it’s entertaining enough though.
The Fifth Estate opens wide all across Seattle tomorrow.